With all due respect to George Cukor’s 1954 version—and a somewhat grim nod to Frank Pierson’s rock-star variant from 1976—William A. Wellman’s original 1937 A Star Is Born is the essential Hollywood cautionary tale. It may owe something to Cukor’s 1932 film What Price Hollywood?, but it’s really its own animal. Changing the alcoholic director of the earlier film to an alcoholic actor in Wellman’s movie makes a significant difference, because it puts the two main characters—Esther Victoria Blodgett/Vicki Lester (Janet Gaynor) and Norman Maine (Fredric March)—on equal footing. That her stardom climbs ever higher while his bottoms out due to his drinking makes the situation that much more pointed.
What really makes Wellman’s film the standout, though, is Wellman. It took a no-nonsense and unsentimental filmmaker to keep A Star Is Born from descending into sudsy melodrama, and Wellman was perfect for that. The sharp script—honed by a battery of writers—helped. It’s often forgotten just how funny the earlier parts of the film are with their satirical jabs at Hollywood and its inner workings. The scene where Adolphe Menjou rechristens Esther (“Do you know what her name is? Esther Victoria Blodgett,” press agent Lionel Stander tells Menjou) is a masterpiece of comedy writing and filmmaking. The brilliance of this aspect of the film is that it serves to make the drama just that much more pronounced when it arrives.